The Cleveland Jazz Orchestra with guests Christian McBride, Bobby Watson, and Marcus Belgrave
Since 1980, the month of April has not only meant the budding of spring for Cleveland area music lovers, but also the opportunity to take advantage of one of the country’s most distinguished educational jazz festivals. Cuyahoga Community College presents Tri-C JazzFest yearly and over the span of its two-week duration the festival includes concerts and clinics by a variety of local and national musicians. In addition, the fest provides in multiple ways for high school and college students to have access to performance and workshop activities.
With an eye toward building on the repertory nature of some of jazz music’s most influential composers, the seeds for April 20th’s performance were actually laid many years ago. In 1990, the Mingus Big Band made an appearance at Tri-C and Mingus scholars Andrew Homzy and the late Martin Williams were on hand to share their research and insights on a very individualistic and complex man and artist. This opportunity to revisit the Mingus oeuvre brought the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra (CJO) to the stage with special guests alto saxophonist Bobby Watson, trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, and bassist Christian McBride. Formed in 1983, the CJO has been a vital force on the Cleveland jazz scene, performing original music and repertory works while developing into a world-class organization.
For this special evening of music, composer and arranger Sy Johnson was brought in to bring some of his original Mingus charts, rehearse the band, and then present this performance. Johnson’s major claim to fame in the area of jazz is his work developing charts for Mingus’ 1972 Columbia release Let My Children Hear Music. His continued involvement with the late bassist’s music includes arranging work for the Mingus Big Band. All of the pieces from the aforementioned album were included in the evening’s program, in addition to some other Mingus tunes. With a dry sense of humor and a delightful stage presence, Johnson not only conducted each piece but also added considerably to the whole presentation by sharing many anecdotes and stories.
Things got underway with a typically buoyant Mingus line pretentiously titled “The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife Are Some Jive Ass Slippers.” Special guest Bobby Watson made his first cameo appearance here and his extended cadenza at the piece’s conclusion found him utilizing circular breathing with great results. By contrast, “Adagio Ma Non Troppo” took on the disposition of a contemporary classical piece. This was further heightened by the inclusion of bassoon and French horn in the ensemble. An extended work with shifting tempos and a good deal of allocated solo space, “Don’t Be Afraid, the Clown’s Afraid Too” built its theme in layers. Its middle section then reverted to a waltz tempo and a singsong type of melody that was programmatic in recalling a circus atmosphere (Bobby Watson’s alto even let out a few “laughs” that were deliciously appropriate). Animated solos were dolled out by Watson, trumpeter Marcus Belgrave and CJO bassist Dave Morgan.
It was then time to bring out guest Christian McBride, whose primal bass riff introduced us to “Hobo Ho.” This swinger had Watson wailing on top as the band provided encouraging shouts and some fine counterpoint. The contrast in moods came yet once more with a dark and brooding “The Chill of Death.” According to Johnson, Mingus had written the piece after he had managed to slow his heartbeat while meditating, finding a new level of enlightenment via the experience. Expertly illustrating the CJO’s ability to nail some complex charts, this through-composed work included no solos and again approached the demeanor of a classical composition. The first half of the evening then came to a close with “The I Of Hurricane Sue,” an energetic line that Mingus had written for his wife Susan and which featured spots from Watson, Belgrave, and McBride.
Following intermission, Johnson choose to open the second act with a piece that has gained new life through its use on a few recent television commercials. “Haitian Fight Song” builds it momentum on a distinctive bass line and the cannon form that finds the melody voiced by different parts of the orchestra spaced at various time intervals. It kicked up quite some dust, providing for a tart soprano solo from saxophonist Howie Smith, a dialogue between McBride and Belgrave, and further solos from McBride and drummer Mark Gonder. A gentle “Eclipse” introduced a new ensemble color with guitarist Bob Fraser starting things off, the chart then settling into a pseudo bossa groove.